Children’s language skills arise before speech

Seven out of every hundred children do not learn their mother tongue as expected. Christina Reuterskiöld, newly appointed professor of speech and language pathology at Linköping University, is investigating how language develops in children. She comes to LiU from a long and distinguished career at New York University.

Charlotte Perhammar

Nowadays, she cycles to the University Hospital Campus every morning – through Linköping’s equivalent to NY’s Central Park. Or Trädgårdsföreningen, to give it its proper name.

“All my life I’ve been looking for adventure. And this will be a new adventure for me. So much exciting work that crosses disciplinary borders is being done at Linköping University. Cross-disciplinarity is a relatively new idea at NYU, but it’s been established at LiU for decades”, she points out.

Christina Reuterskiöld took a doctoral degree at Lund University in 1999, with a thesis that examined language ability in various contexts in children with developmental language disorder. She has been at New York University for the past 18 years as associate professor and head of department. She initially studied as physical education teacher and worked in several schools in Malmö.

“But I felt I wasn’t finished with my own education First, I thought about physiotherapy and then journalism, but in the end I applied to train as speech and language therapist. This turned out to be the perfect choice!”
What made it so perfect?

“It’s about language, communication and people. Speech therapists need to be experts in psychology, medicine and language. And they can make a huge difference in the lives and families of the people they work with.”

What do you mean?
“Consider a family member who has a stroke, which leaves them unable to talk and understand everything that’s said. This dramatically changes the family situation. A speech therapist can improve the ability of a person to communicate and participate.”

A child’s mother tongue

Christina Reuterskiöld initially worked with the speech and language of older people, but gradually became interested in how children communicate. In particular, she was intrigued by normal language development and language impairment in children.

“Around 7% of children do not master their mother tongue as expected. The effects can be seen in how they speak, or in their reading and writing skills. Some children find it difficult to create the linguistic expression of what they want to communicate. You can see a communicative ability in children even before they start to speak. You can see how they communicate with the world around them in a context.”

She believes that tests of children’s language abilities alone are insufficient.

“We must look at their language ability in natural contexts. This requires interaction analysis, and investigating communication between children and adults. We can collect spontaneous speech, and analyse the conversation. This doesn’t just include analysis of grammar, but also analysis of how the ‘dancing partners’ interact. I plan to continue this research in Linköping, where conversation analysis is well established.”

Autism

Children with autism or other communicative impairments are often given technical aids or symbol systems, using, for example, pictograms. Christina Reuterskiöld has started studies into how visual representations of words (orthographics) can promote the development of vocabulary. She has recently published a review article in the field, co-authored with a PhD student.

“If the child can use orthographic representations, written words, this is a great help. Research results suggest that children with various forms of communicative impairment, and those with dyslexia, can be helped to learn vocabulary by written words. The orthographic representations can be stored in the memory. This is why it can be important to expose children to letter combinations and visual representations.”

My goal is to provide as much support as possible for language development 
“My goal is to improve the quality of life of these children and provide as much support as possible for their language development. I want to emphasise that it’s not a goal in itself that they should start to read earlier.”

Research and teaching

Christina Reuterskiöld is passionate about both research and teaching. She will continue to supervise her PhD students and work on research projects using remote methods. Several of these are in New York, and one is in Sri Lanka. The projects cover a wide spectrum, such as methods to test communication skills, cultural differences that require speech therapy adaptation, and multilingualism.

“Speech therapists today must have expertise in multilingualism and cultural differences. At NYU, we created an online study programme. This led to four times the number of students, and an increase in research results. We created elective courses for students of speech therapy in such topics as bilingualism.”

Christina Reuterskiöld is a fountain of ideas when it comes to teaching and multidisciplinary work. Speech and language therapists also work with people who have difficulty swallowing, a condition known as dysphagia. It can arise after a stroke, in people with cancer, and in children.

“We started a course with speech therapists, dieticians and medical students, and used an approach similar to problem-based learning. The students were divided into teams and given a case, such as a man who had suffered a stroke and was now experiencing difficulty swallowing. The team’s task was to create a menu and prepare meals that would help this patient. The results were assessed by a panel with a speech therapist, dietician, doctor and master chef.”

“Great fun”

A small example of inventiveness in the academic world. As a new arrival in Linköping, Christina Reuterskiöld is getting to know both the city and the university. And has already fallen in love with Trädgårdsföreningen.

“It’s so beautiful, just like a small version of Central Park. It’s great fun and exciting to be working in Sweden again”, says Christina Reuterskiöld.
(Translated by George Farrants)

Facts in brief: Christina Reuterskiöld

In the news: Newly appointed professor of speech and language pathology at LiU, at the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences.
Most recent post: Employed at New York University as associate professor and head of department.
Lives: Newly arrived in Linköping.
Family: A son in London and a daughter in Brooklyn. Swedish family in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Kalmar.
Most recently read book: “A Woman is No Man” by Etaf Rum
A previous highlight from her professional life: Worked as English-speaking speech therapist in Rome. “Many of the world’s large metropolitan areas have English schools and hospitals, and a major need for speech therapy services for bilingualism.”

ContactShow/Hide content

Latest news from LiUShow/Hide content